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Sailing in Chile: Part 2 - Sailing in the White

by Karina McQueen & Gary Peacock 9 Jan 16:57 UTC
Sea Rover II docked at Marina Austral in the lovely town of Puerto Aguirre in the heart of northern Patagonia. © Karina McQueen & Gary Peacock

Every sailor has a comfort zone. For most of us, this zone is a moving target that expands a little bit each time we push ourselves to experience something new. I remember the first time we crossed Georgia Strait - even though it was calm and we motored almost the whole way across, there was an underlying current of anxiety. What if the engine fails? What if there is no wind and we can't sail across? How will we get into our slip in the marina? Of course none of those worries came to pass - on that particular crossing, anyway.

Each time we ventured out on the boat, we encountered a new situation that pushed our comfort zone a little bit further. Whether it was sailing downwind in our first gale while trying to get our spinnaker pole down, making that hard left turn at Neah Bay, or dealing with our first major 'issue' at sea when our forestay came undone our first night out, we learned from each experience and moved forward feeling a bit more comfortable and confident.

As our sailing experience increased, so did our comfort zone. We survived our first overnight passage, our first really rough weather, our first engine problem offshore, our first big ocean crossing, and then our first gale (of six) in 30 foot seas in the southern ocean. I wouldn't necessarily want to repeat some of those experiences, but we learned to trust ourselves and the boat and I know I can now handle situations I couldn't have dreamed of 10 years ago when we started sailing.

Adventure is all about traveling outside your comfort level, but being 'in that zone' for long periods of time can wear you down. Sailing in Chile with the winds, inclement weather and the general remoteness of the area put us out of our comfort zone numerous times last season.

A few months ago, en route to the glacier at Laguna San Rafael, we had one of our typical sailing days moving from one unknown anchorage to the next, aka: STRESSFUL. After three days of traveling south in strong winds from varying directions, fighting contrary currents that were predicted to be with us, and trying to decipher the cryptic language nuances of the two cruising guidebooks we use for this area, we were starting to get a little tired. So imagine how we felt when we were forced to add "Sailing in the White" to our daily routine. This is a term that strikes fear into the most hardened, crusty cruiser, as it means you are now sailing without a map to tell you what is below the surface of the water.

Chile's charts have improved dramatically over the past 10 years and their Chart Atlas, which contains every marine chart for the entire coast, is a model that should be followed by every country in the world. However, there are still areas where the underlying depth information was determined by a guy in a row boat with a lead line in 1720.

In planning our next day of travel to the small town of Puerto Aguirre, we realized that to get to the anchorage in a timely manner (ie, before the big forecasted afternoon blow, the current switching and darkness), we would have to travel through a minefield of uncharted reefs, unnamed islets and narrow passes, with no depth information indicated on the charts. How could we possibly not run aground?

The night before this passage was spent pouring over the charts, both electronic and paper, comparing them with our cached electronic google satellite images to check for any differences along our planned route. We studied the guidebooks for any hints of what to avoid and read the long trip reports of all those who had passed before us. Our fear was dampened a little by the knowledge we gleaned and eventually transformed itself into a healthy caution. We were as ready as we could be and it was time to move on.

The next morning we set off "Into the White" with a feeling of mild anxiety. Of course the contrary wind picked up earlier than anticipated and the currents were, as usual, not from the direction we expected. The depth sounder jumped dramatically from 200 m to 2 m and then back to 200 m. Were there fish below? Rocks? A thermocline? Was the depth sounder having a seizure? We began to question what we knew. Were we really prepared? The answer was a resounding YES. We reefed to make the boat comfortable, realized the current wasn't slowing forward progress to a halt, and learned to ignore the erratic readings on the depth sounder (well, sort of). We followed our planned course and nothing went 'bump'. Dolphins leaped, Albatross soared, and Penguins bobbed around us. We made it to Puerto Aguirre with no paint missing off the bottom. Our comfort zone had creeped another inch forward.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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